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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Cold, wet, sloppy mess

Schools remain closed as Guard joins cleanup

By Jonathan Brunt and Mike Prager The Spokesman-Review

After a month of record-breaking wintry weather, Wednesday’s big thaw busted up a few layers of snow and ice that have choked thoroughfares and threatened roofs with collapse.

But the disruption brought by weather wasn’t over: Spokane Public Schools planned to close today for more snow and ice removal.

“The warm temperatures have reduced the snow on our roofs dramatically,” Superintendent Nancy Stowell said. “Now we need to focus on parking lots and sidewalks that have become extremely icy or extremely wet, depending on the time of day.”

About 60 members of the Washington National Guard will help school employees in that effort, according to a school district press release.

The soldiers will travel by school bus from one school to another, tackling projects such as cutting away berms that block drivers’ vision.

Other large Spokane County districts planned to welcome back students today. For some, including Central Valley and Mead, it marks the end of a winter break that stretched 21 days, instead of the planned 17.

Temperatures Wednesday reached the mid- to upper 40s.

And across the Inland Northwest, residents faced a sloppy mess as melting snow and ice covered roads, leaked into buildings and soaked pedestrians.

An ice jam clogged the Palouse River in Colfax on Wednesday afternoon.

In North Idaho, water was reported across U.S. Highway 95 at Eid and Jackshaw roads in Latah County.

Spokane and North Idaho crews hurried to clear storm drains, and the threat of more rain and runoff continues today under an urban and small-stream flood warning.

Still, Spokane officials said the condition of the city’s streets had improved enough by Wednesday evening to halt the mandatory seven-day-a-week, 12-hour shifts snow-removal crews had been working for three weeks.

The city also released its 10 contracted grader crews from duty.

“Everybody’s tired of the amount of snow,” plow driver Jeff Keith said Wednesday.

County road officials planned to continue their emergency plow response for at least a few days, county spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter said.

The county will continue clearing snow on residential streets.

Costly response

The snowstorms’ financial impact to local governments is expected to reach several million dollars and comes on top of a similar winter emergency in early 2008.

Final numbers were still being calculated, but based on the amount, the city said the response costs on a daily basis, Spokane’s tally could top $4 million for this season’s weather, though that includes salaries of employees who would have been paid anyway.

The cost overrun for snow removal since the start of 2008 is now about $3 million, officials said.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said the city will apply for federal relief. Spokane, Spokane County and Spokane Valley all declared emergencies as crews responded to the storms.

Spokane County CEO Marshall Farnell said the county spent from $1.5 million to $2 million for snow removal in December.

“I’m very hopeful that we’ll get some help from the federal government, but I doubt we will,” Farnell said.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said federal aid could come in three categories: money for snow removal for the worst days; loans to businesses or residents affected by the storms; and payment for losses incurred for emergency management and the loss of public assets.

As the bills were tallied, cleanup efforts continued.

City and county plow crews worked Wednesday to widen streets narrowed by giant snow berms. In some cases that meant knocking snow from berms into traffic lanes where it could melt.

“We want to get our lanes back,” said Mark Serbousek, Spokane’s street director. “Everybody sees what a one-lane reduction does to some of these arterials.”

After three rounds of residential plowing, city crews will mostly stay out of neighborhoods to avoid building more berms. “We’re trying to let the warm weather melt it away,” he said.

Structural damage

As snow melts, large ice dams combined with frozen ground at the edges of homes and other buildings can cause leaking and damage.

The Spokane Civic Theatre, 1020 N. Howard St., reported that its basement venue, the Firth J. Chew Studio Theatre, was flooded. Damage was estimated at $20,000.

An awning at Spokane Fire Station No. 15 at 212 E. Wellesley Ave. collapsed, as did a portion of the Canada Island shelter at Riverfront Park, adding to the list of dozens of snow-caused roof and building failures reported over the past few weeks.

Despite that, forecaster John Livingston said snow loads on roofs in Spokane’s metropolitan area had been reduced by the meltdown.

He said Spokane got a break when the rain let up Tuesday night and Wednesday. However, more precipitation fell in other parts of northeast Washington and North Idaho.

The town of Rockford requested 1,000 sandbags in case Rock Creek overflowed, Spokane County officials said. Flooded basements were reported throughout the region.

On Tuesday, a large bulldozer got stuck while moving snow along a county road. A crane pulled the bulldozer out after three commercial wreckers failed to free it.

‘Winding down’

As the challenging conditions dragged on, residents across the region remained frustrated. Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said a county plow driver was threatened Tuesday by a motorist who blocked the plow’s path.

The motorist got out of his pickup, jumped on the plow truck’s running boards and banged on the driver’s window.

Mielke said Spokane County roads had mostly been reopened with the help of two Air National Guard snow-moving machines. However, some were still reduced to one lane.

Lt. Gov. Brad Owen and National Guard Brig. Gen. Gary Magonigle on Wednesday visited Spokane to meet with officials and view the damage caused by the record snowfall.

Owen promised to help the region recover losses through federal assistance. “We will work as diligently as we can to get reimbursement,” he said.

A Pacific cold front expected Thursday evening should end the rain and cause temperatures to drop into the 30s during the day and 20s at night, slowing the runoff. The outlook for Jan. 15 to Jan. 21 calls for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation, said Livingston, of the National Weather Service.

“Things should be winding down,” he said.

Spokane had a record 61.5 inches of snow in December and 16.3 inches so far this month. With rain added to that, the weight of the snow caused dozens of roof collapses across the region, in addition to forcing schools, businesses and government office to close.

Staff writer Dan Hansen contributed to this story.
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